Auto Parts Workers Strike for Recognition, Strategy Was to Shut Down Assembly Plant

Workers who build brakes and struts for Jeep used the tightness of the "just-in-time" supply system to threaten a shutdown of the profitable vehicle, as they struck for recognition. Photo: Paul Wohlfarth.

This article was updated with new information after management gave in and recognized the UAW at 5 p.m. April 17, and a new sidebar was added about a second group of Toledo auto workers.

Auto parts workers at the Piston Automotive factory in Toledo, Ohio, went on strike for union recognition at 9 a.m. April 17—and by 5 p.m., the boss had given in.

The 70 workers make brake systems and struts for the new Jeep Cherokee, built by Chrysler in a plant across town. Because of Chrysler’s tight “just-in-time” delivery system, their strike could have quickly shut down production of the profitable Cherokee.

Piston workers said 75-80 percent had signed cards asking for representation by the United Auto Workers, but management refused to recognize them.

A union’s typical next step is filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board—but that gives the boss a chance to drag out the process and put workers through an anti-union wringer. Strikes for recognition, once common, have become rare.


One Step Forward,
One Step Back

Ironically, just as the UAW was organizing one group of Jeep supplier workers, it was walking away from another.

Jeep employs the PIC Group for “third-party inspection,” such jobs as test-driving and checking “easily identified, easily fixable” errors, such as a missing muffler clamp, said UAW Regional Director Ken Lortz.

PIC Group workers are on call to work at different Michigan and Ohio auto plants as needed. Keith Sadler said he was paid $9.30 an hour to test-drive Jeep vehicles under a UAW contract. Some workers had been complaining they weren’t getting enough hours.

But as the union was negotiating a new contract, officials decided they didn’t have enough leverage to win any gains—and walked away.

Sadler said the company called a meeting, a few days before a scheduled union meeting, and announced the UAW was no longer representing workers. Managers also announced a 70-cent raise.

Why Walk Away?

“The hard part was you had people who might work at all different places, and you can’t keep track of who’s working where when,” Lortz said.

“Because of the type of work they do, the employer could grab almost anybody. We didn’t have the bargaining leverage. We don’t want to collect dues if we can’t do something for them.”

Sadler said he’d worked 11 hours in the last three weeks, since the union was disbanded. “We were supposed to talk about this in negotiations,” he said, “the company picking and choosing who they were calling.”

UAW Regional Director Ken Lortz said the union informed Chrysler, “as a courtesy,” about the potential for interruption, as “one of their suppliers was not listening to us as closely as we thought they should.”

The parts made at Piston Automotive used to be made in-house at Jeep, Lortz said. But in 2002 the company created a “supplier park” and outsourced a wide array of vital components to suppliers.

The parts were then made by what the auto industry calls a “first-tier supplier,” Dana, which agreed to card-check recognition of the UAW. But last year Jeep decided it wanted the parts cheaper, and non-union Piston underbid.

BOILING POINT

Striker Trina Lawson said workers approached the UAW when they learned that other supplier plants paid more than the $12.55 made by experienced workers at Piston.

Lawson cited instances of managers’ “picky, childish” intimidation and said workers were sometimes made to work through their breaks or lunches.

Sarina McLaughlin, who torques bolts for the knuckles and puts trailing arms on the rear brake line, said sometimes managers tell workers two minutes before quitting time that they have to stay over—and then dismiss them at 12 minutes after the hour, before extra pay would kick in.

Asked why she backed the union, McLaughlin said, “In 1982 I was making $10.54 an hour at a union Safeway bread plant in Houston. They only want to pay us $12.55 and that was 32 years ago; that’s all I got to say.

“Cigarettes have tripled, gas has quadrupled,” she added. “Those people up there in the office couldn’t support their family on $12.55 an hour.” She said even temporary workers were on the line.

BIG LEVERAGE

Lawson said the morning of the strike, the plant manager gave a speech inside the plant, threatening workers with points on their record or loss of holiday pay, and warning them that a walkout would shut Jeep down—and they all walked out anyway.

Shutting Jeep down was the plan, after all. Lortz said workers walked out before the meeting was over, to be met by cheering UAW staff.

Some got phone calls while on the picket line, telling them they’d been terminated. But the strike settlement guaranteed no retaliation.

In 1997 the UAW used a similar strategy to take advantage of the outsize power that “just-in-time” gives to supplier workers. Seat builders at Johnson Controls, a supplier to Ford, stopped production of Ford’s Expedition SUV (profit: $10,000 per vehicle) to pressure for a first contract.

And in 2002 the union shut down Jeep production to force recognition and first contracts at four other Johnson Controls plants.

George Windau, a skilled trades worker at Jeep, said at the time that the strike was “so devastating on production simply because of the ‘just-in-time’ supply philosophy used in the plants, which relies on a steady and continuous flow of these parts from Johnson Controls.”

When Labor Notes noted the power on display by Piston workers, McLaughlin laughed. “I’m loving it,” she said.

Comments

GeorgeWindau | 05/06/14

The battle at Piston on April 17th really was a showdown with Chrysler (Jeep).
After Chrysler stopped doing business with Dana Corp for the brake systems, Chrysler promised the UAW that they would bring the brake production IN HOUSE at Jeep, which would have been an additional 60 jobs.....but Chrysler reneged on the deal and subcontracted to Piston, a non-union shop.

So, the UAW said 'let these people join the UAW,' and Chrysler said they would not make that demand on Piston....so the strike was called on April 17th with the precise goal of shutting down Jeep production that day to show the union power.

According to what President Bruce Baumhower implied at the Jeep Unit UAW Local 12 union meeting on May 2, UAW members AT JEEP who inspected the incoming parts REJECTED THE TRUCKS full of brakes and struts and sent them back to Piston on that day (April 17th). Chrysler management was not part of this scheme, it was a struggle against Chrysler management for reneging on the deal they struck with the UAW to bring the work IN HOUSE at Jeep.

All but 6 workers on both shifts at Piston came out to support the strike. Those 6 who did not support the UAW strike were given $100 gift cards by the company (Piston). The UAW threatened to file Federal NLRB charges on Piston for giving out these cards to influence workers against the union.

So, to prevent that, all 70 Piston workers (including those who went out on strike) were given $100 gift cards from Piston. Now the workers at Piston lost $67 for a day-long strike but then they received a $100 gift card for going on strike.

I think that the Jeep Cherokee is so hot that Chrysler didn't want to lose even a few hours production on Thursday, April 17th. Maybe that's why the Piston company caved in so soon.

Even so, I have to ask why UAW Local 12 decided to call a one-day strike just before Easter weekend when NO Jeep Cherokee production would be scheduled for Good Friday, Saturday or Easter Sunday. Perhaps it was a 'warning strike' similar to one-day strikes called by German workers (I.G. Metal union) in the German Auto Industry, just before contract negotiations. That may indicate a bigger battle is brewing between the UAW and Chrysler for the upcoming 2015 Contract.

I now think this one-day Piston strike was indeed the opening round for a bigger contract struggle ahead at Chrysler.

paulgarver | 04/21/14

It is exciting to see this creative use of an old tactic. Chinese workers also took advantage of just-in-time production systems to win major wage increases at many auto parts plants in 2010 through wildcat strikes.

bsommer3 | 04/19/14

It's interesting to see Toledo workers recognizing their rights and, perhaps unknowingly, honoring their history. As a graduate student writing a thesis on the subject, I cannot help but see some parallels to the Electric Auto-Lite Strike of 1934 (fittingly, this strike taking place during the 80th anniversary). in 1934, workers at Electric Auto-Lite - also an auto parts plant - struck, as their union was not being recognized by management. A local judge sought to enjoin their strike but that only made the union and its various allies more resilient. Eventually - without getting into too many details - the union won a significant victory: 5% wage increase, seniority rights, and official recognition by the company. The Local had many allies including Communists, socialists, pacifists, workers from other plants and even other states. All participated in the strike. It was an iconic event in the 1930s, a critical period in the history of American labor. I wish the workers at Jeep good luck and solidarity in their efforts.

jane slaughter | 04/23/14

Yes, I was thinking about the Toledo Auto-Lite strike as I was writing the article--one of the iconic events of that very eventful year, 1934.